Tue, 22 Aug 2000

UN disarmament session under scrutiny

By Bruno Franceschi

GENEVA (AFP): Diplomats and experts are increasingly questioning the purpose of the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) which, dogged by disagreement, has effectively been unable for the last two years to get its work program off the starting blocks.

Only a few weeks away from rounding up its annual session here on Sept. 22, the Geneva-based Conference has still not managed to agree on how to launch negotiations on creating a "de- nuclearized" world.

In the short-term, the Conference cannot even agree on how to start talks on the drawing up of a treaty banning the production of fissile material used in making nuclear bombs.

The 66 Conference members are divided between those who see a link among all the issues dealing with general disarmament, and others who want them dealt with separately.

In addition, the five officially recognized nuclear powers -- the United States, France, Britain, Russia and China -- all have differing stances.

"If within the next months no compromise is achieved to make possible the resumption of serious negotiations in the CD, it would be reasonable to dissolve the CD," vice-president of the Geneva International Peace Research Institute Jozef Goldblat said.

At the end of last year's session of the Conference, the French and British representatives both expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the body.

Hubert de la Fortelle of France said the Conference was "gravely ill", while Britain's Ian Soutar described it as having reached a "lamentable impasse".

A year later, and some diplomats are still saying the same thing. Others such as Algeria's Ambassador Mohamed Dembri still want to have faith in the Conference, the only body to discuss disarmament at the international level.

But the mechanisms of this body whose basic rule is agreement by consensus meaning each member has the right of veto, need reviewing, Goldblat believes.

For this reason, he has called for the treaty dealing with the elimination and halt of fissile material production to be discussed outside the Conference.

"Since all the nuclear countries, the five official ones and three non-official ones (India, Pakistan and Israel) agree on the principle of such a treaty, why not discuss it somewhere else?" he has said.

Such a method was put forward by Canada for the banning of mines, one of the subjects which remains on the Conference's agenda. It resulted in the signing of an international convention in December 1997 in Ottawa. However the signatures of the United States, China and Russia are notable in their absence.

Another bone of contention is the U.S. program of anti-missile ballistic missiles -- called Nuclear Missile Defense (NMD) -- which the United States holds on to as a way of better countering new additions to the club of long range missile owners such as North Korea.

China and Russia oppose the program, Moscow believing it in violation of the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems) agreement it concluded with Washington in 1972 on reducing missiles of this kind.

"The international dynamic at the beginning of the 1990s after the collapse of Communism which favored the banning of nuclear tests and the indefinite extension of a treaty on nuclear non- proliferation, no longer exists," Goldblat said.

The Conference on Disarmament is virtually blocked, at least until the summer of 2001, or six months after the United States takes over the presidency of the body, some diplomats have noted.

However, between now and then, diplomats will continue to meet every Thursday during the three annual sessions to restate their differences.